October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Two bereaved mothers share insights on what to know and how to respond to child loss.
In August 2013, Marines Michelle and Kyle Moskiewicz were navigating the typical rollercoaster of being first-time parents when they woke up in the middle of the night to discover their 3-month-old son, Chance, died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Nine years later, Michelle, who is medically separated from the Marines and a mother of five (including Chance), shared insights from her experience with losing a child.
Every military dependent child has a life insurance policy.
For every service member covered under the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI), their dependent children are automatically covered with Family SGLI. The coverage, which is part of the military compensation benefits, is $10,000 per child and provides for burial and funeral expenses.
Parental bereavement leave is new and forthcoming.
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 established a new paid leave policy providing federal employees up to two weeks of parental bereavement leave following the death of a dependent child. In April 2022, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued guidance for all federal agencies to adopt this policy.
According to the American Federation of Government Employees, the Navy has implemented this leave, but inquiries could not confirm whether all services have.
Michelle, who took personal leave following her son’s death, said this would be a welcomed policy change, affording families a designated block of time to grieve and have a funeral.
Every military command needs a clear plan.
Michelle said their family’s grief was compounded by an apparent lack of formal procedures at either of their commands.
“You would have thought we were the first Marines on that base to ever lose a child,” she said. “Nobody knew what to do.”
To help ensure a smoother response, she urges service members to check that their command has a clear plan in place for leadership to implement.
Assign one point of contact for orchestrating help.
In the weeks after her son died, Michelle recalls countless phone calls from her command and well-meaning friends. But having to retell the story and make decisions about what to do next was overwhelming.
“Somebody needs to take charge. Because it’s not going to be the parents who just lost a child,” she said.
She recommends having one person from the command, like a mentor or staff officer who has a strong rapport with the family, serve as the primary point of contact.
Meet each family’s specific needs — especially meals.
What a family needs following the loss of a child is highly individualized to that family. If your command or readiness group organizes a meal train, sign up. Providing a meal, if requested, is one of the most practical ways to help a grieving family.
Stick around for the long haul.
When a loved one dies, condolences and offers for help often rush in and then fade. Michelle wishes she’d had more support several weeks after the funeral.
“A month later when we were still dealing with the grief and coming out of that shock, that’s when we needed people, but everybody had gotten back on with their life,” she said. “It felt very isolating because then you started feeling like you were bothering people.”
The pain of losing of a child never fully heals.
Nine years after Chance’s death, Michelle teared up as she spoke about the night her son died.
“It’s weird to think that so much time has gone by, and it still affects you so much,” she said.
Connecting with other families who have experienced a similar loss has been helpful, and she mentioned several Facebook groups for veterans and family members who have lost a child. Still Standing Magazine, which was founded by a Marine spouse, offers a place for bereaved parents to share stories and resources.
“If you find a community of people, they can help walk you through it,” she said. “It all comes back to community.”
Overcoming the isolation of child loss.
At their first duty station in Fort Rucker, Alabama, Army spouse Kristin Vanderlip experienced a devastating loss when their infant daughter, Hailey, passed away from a chromosomal disorder. Losing a child, she said, complicated efforts to make new friends and isolated her from the community of support she desperately needed.
“When people would inquire about kids, it was like dropping a bombshell to say our daughter just died,” Vanderlip said.
Now a mother of two boys, Vanderlip said one of the most common questions she was asked — ‘How many kids do you have?’ — remains the hardest to answer.
“To not say I had a daughter felt dishonoring. I had to say her name. I had to share her,” she said. “But I learned that that’s heavy for a lot of people, especially when you first meet them.”
Instead, Vanderlip prefers the question, ‘What’s your family like?’
“Even for somebody who hasn’t lost a child. Even for somebody who’s going through a divorce or any other myriad of ways our family can look, that question feels so much more comfortable,” she said.
After years of navigating this tension, writing about loss on Instagram and coaching others to process grief through journaling, Vanderlip has found her rhythm.
“More often than not, when I am meeting someone for the first time, I don’t share about our daughter. I don’t feel like I am betraying my daughter’s namesake like I used to,” she said. “Now I can see I am holding her memory sacredly and safely in my heart, and I can share when the time is right.”
Vanderlip says living as a bereaved mother remains difficult at times and requires discernment. She hopes sharing about loss and grief will help communities engage with sensitivity to others and the hard experiences they may carry.